Contributed by Ros Davies
Criticism of street pastors occasionally appears on the letters pages of local newspapers or online. Perhaps you’ve heard someone question the role of the street pastor, or even asked the questions yourself. In this series of blogs I will list some of these published negative comments. In answering them my hope is not to dismiss such observations but allow them to tell us something about how we relate to each other and how, through the Street Pastors initiative, we might be able to find new ways to talk about spiritual subjects.
Critic no. 2: “They go around the city at weekend nights, seeking those whom they regard as vulnerable, cosseting them in blankets if perchance the night has a chill to it, and the taxi queue at some God-less hour is slow moving. They distribute flip-flops to damsels whose high-heeled shoes may cause them some discomfort as they make their unsteady way from pub to pub.”
This critic is arguing two things: first, that the people that street pastors help are not really in need – they are just drunk, cold or wearing the wrong shoes. Second, the critic infers that the care that street pastors provide is not needed and over-protective.
It is important that street pastors are available to all – for the temporarily unwell or unhappy as well as the unconscious person in the shop doorway. Being available to all means that street pastors develop a ‘presence’ on the streets and that by responding to anyone in need they are then often well-placed to be a listening ear for the issue behind the issue. No, not everyone that street pastors meet is in crisis – many are just having a good time – but there are others for whom a night out and alcohol is masking a deeper distress.
So the question seems to be, what is the point of a simple, non-lifesaving act of kindness? Many emails and social media posts tell how grateful individuals are for the simple acts of kindness they have received from street pastors. It makes a difference to them. Then there’s the issue of building trust – at a community level as well as a personal level. Trust grows when the public is aware of the distinctive, consistent presence of local people from local churches in their town; people who are alongside them when they are having a laugh and alongside them when a night out goes wrong. The ‘soft skills’ that street pastors bring to incidents of antisocial behaviour, anxiety or drunkenness are enabled because street pastors have more time to give than police officers do. Their presence stops an incident from escalating and saves the resources of the police and the emergency services for those people and incidents that need them most.
In the next blog in this series, Critic no. 3 asks what’s the point of street pastors if no one ever goes to church with them the next day.